3.14.2009

Liberal

It was very cold outside; a thick layer of ice grew on the inside of the single paned and poorly glazed window. It was only inches from my face as I slept in the bedroom next to the kitchen. The bed covers consisted of flannel sheets and two heavy quilts that Grandma Turner had made ... the 'prettier' one was on top. I knew Dad was up, even though it was dark outside, because I woke up in a sweat. When Dad got up and came into the kitchen he always closed the bedroom door, trying to minimize the noise. He didn't realize that the space heater in the bedroom quickly turned the top bunk into a roasting oven.

For some reason, this time, I got up, instead of shedding covers and feigning sleep. I opened the door asking if breakfast was pancakes or waffles, there was a pause, a plan was forming, and I heard, "Get dressed. We're going out for breakfast. You're going to work with me today." I made a mental note for the next time similar circumstances occurred.

It was early, too early for the cafe downtown to be open, but I didn't ask questions. I got dressed, with minimal whining, and Dad filled up the silver and the green thermos with coffee. He put sugar in the green one. He sent me out to start the pickup to get it, and the defroster, warm. A shivering return, without jacket or hat or gloves, prompted his barely perceptible head shake, my corresponding weak nod and a trip to the closet.

Soon we were at the warehouse (WAHR-house), fueling up the bobtail and filling its tanks with alcohol (al-KEE-haul). The alcohol was for the natural gas pipelines up north, to keep them from freezing. Exhaust from the diesel engine ran through a large cylindrical pipe, that served as the front bumper, and exited underneath the right front, a good place to warm your feet. Liberal, Kansas was our destination and I was already wishing I had grabbed a few other clothing items from the closet.

The first leg of the trip was to Perryton, 70 miles north. Sugared coffee, a symphony of drafty whistling from the bobtail's poorly fit cab and the occasional security light at a ranch house were the only things worthy of attention in the dark of the early morning drive. We stopped at the Dutch Inn for breakfast and since the company was picking up the check I got the chicken fried steak and eggs with biscuits, cream gravy and a short stack of pancakes. I had milk to drink since my stomach was already suffering from a coffee induced acid wash. Dad had toast and sausage and orange juice. I asked why he didn't get the steak and eggs and he replied that he had had enough of that stuff growing up which confused me, since I knew he grew up dirt poor.

He grew up on a homestead farm and ranch in Gray County, near Alanreed. They fed themselves with what they raised or bartered for and occasionally bought. They had steak and eggs every morning, unless the hens didn't lay, and then they just had steak, or some form of beef. They slaughtered their own steers for meat, but they had no refrigeration. They were also feeding 10 or 12 people at every meal so it didn't make sense to salt or smoke the whole thing when they would probably be eating it soon. The solution was to haul the carcass up to the top of the windmill with a block and tackle, "where the flys couldn't blow it." Every morning one of the boys would lower it down, Grandma Turner would cut off what she needed for the day, and then they'd hoist it back up. Gather some eggs from the laying hens and there you have your steak and eggs.

What they didn't have was toasted fresh bread. Toasted usually meant the bread was stale or moldy; fresh bread was eaten with churned butter. Nor did they have sausage, unless they made it themselves, and then it was usually smoked, not fresh breakfast links or patties. And orange juice was a true luxury. He said that oranges and pecans and socks were usually what he got in his Christmas stocking, in the good years. I could usually tell when Dad was stretching the truth, making an insignificant story into an epic, but this wasn't one of those times. My fine breakfast was difficult to finish, but I did, in appreciation of my new interpretation of 'feast' and in the hope of avoiding the "you're a dang sight better off than I was" speech.

We stopped at various booster stations on the way to Liberal near Booker, Darrouzett, Follett and Beaver, OK. The booster stations were impressive. The huge natural gas fired engines, with over-sized radiators, had a pop-pop-pop-pop exhaust you could hear from miles away in the flat, rural landscape. They shook the ground around them. At each booster station was an overhead tank, with plumbing that connected to the natural gas pipeline. Our job was to fill up those tanks with methanol, to be pumped into the pipeline, to prevent any water vapor that happened to be there from freezing. It had been below freezing for days. At noon on this Saturday, it was still in the single digits.

At each station there were always several various sized rubber balls scattered around. After a few stops I was curious enough to pick one up and Dad explained that they were used to clean the line. Somewhere farther north the balls were put into the pipeline and the pressure of the gas moved them down the line. They were different sizes because of wear and almost all of them, at least the ones on the ground, were cracked and brittle.

We stopped at the cafe in Elmwood, OK for lunch, though us working men called it dinner. The waitress knew Dad; it was a regular route and he stopped there often. I had a cheeseburger and Dad had the chicken fry. It was still freezing, but we drank iced tea. We each had a small bowl of cobbler ... cherry for me and peach for Dad ... and then it was on to Liberal.

Even then I viewed vehicles as having personalities ... the trusty steed, the tireless worker, the gracefully aging. The bobtail was the ornery bastard. The clutch was going and I just knew it would leave us stranded at some remote location. The exhaust, despite being a good foot warmer, sent too many fumes back into the cab. The cab had more than drafty rattles, it had un-closable floorboard vents, which might have been great in the summer. The seats had no head rest or arm rests or seat belts so there was no napping, only perching and sliding on the vinyl. The more methanol we unloaded, the bouncier the ride got. And, of course, there was no radio. Dad sang.

We made it to Liberal, which must be the nexus for all natural gas pipelines because we made several stops with none of them very far apart. The work was done and we started the 3 hour drive back home. Along the way Dad sang Bob Wills, talked about "batchin' it" in a line shack on some old ranch and told stories about one-eyed mares, pickin' cotton, how to set a corner fence post and various other handy tidbits. I still don't believe he roped that white tail deer.

We had made a big circle through the small towns in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, with a quick, short dip into Kansas, and now we were makin' a bee-line back home, to Pampa, due south on US Highway 83 in a bobtail truck that I'd just as soon cuss at as ride in. The sun set somewhere along the way home; it was a glorious high plains one. I watched its glory fade from overwhelming to what happened, bouncing along, snatching snippets of panhandle from Dad's running monologue, soaking in the high lonesome and wondering how in the hell I wound up in a near broke truck, anonymously delivering alcohol, and freezing my ass off. At least we were heading home.

When we got home there were two plates of left overs, covered with other plates, in the oven. It was Saturday night, Mom was at work. We ate quickly and as I scraped the plates Dad made dessert ... peanut butter and syrup, with torn up pieces of white bread stirred in. After that, the dishes were rinsed and stacked and I went straight to my unmade bed, being sure to ask Dad to leave the door open.

It was cold here the other morning, though not below freezing. It was hot upstairs when I went to wake up the boy. He'd kicked the covers off and though his eyes were closed, I'm sure he heard me and the dog coming up the stairs. He forgot to take a jacket to school that day. His mother was not pleased, but I sort of understood.

Heat rises. You are what you eat. Like father, like son. Heading home is a good feeling. Some things don't change ... and shouldn't.

3 comments:

  1. Simply beautiful! Wonderful narrative, excellent prose! You sure youre not a famous author?

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  2. That was wonderful to read - I was transported. BTW, I still eat white bread, peanut butter and syrup when I want something sweet and there's nothing in the house ;-)

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  3. I read this a couple of times and it gets better each time I read it. I wish it was longer - It builds a clear picture of the scene and the feeling as well as anything I have ever read - it is beautiful prose. You can really write Dexter.

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